One: Different families have different Christmas traditions. Some of the traditions are really strict. My ex-wife’s family, for instance, was really really really invested in Christmas Eve. You simply must attend the Christmas Eve thing, or you might as well just skip Christmas. This caused a little bit of an issue, since attending my then Mother-in-law’s Christmas Eve in Oregon meant missing my Nice Grandma’s Christmas Eve in southwest Washington. And that’s symbolic of a conflict many couples have: there are at least two family traditions and sets of extended relatives that you want to try to accommodate at major holidays. And it just gets worse if there has been divorces and re-marrying and children now have to contend with even more sets of grandparents and step-grandparents and cousins and step-cousins and so on.
My childhood Christmas memories are divided into several sections. There were about six years where Christmas consisted of Dad, Mom, my sister, and I cramming into either the four-wheel-drive pickup (because the roads would be icy at some point of the journey) either early morning Christmas Eve or sometimes at the end of Dad’s work-shift, and drive hundreds of miles from wherever we were living at the time to my paternal Grandparents’ house. My maternal grandmother (aka Nice Grandma) and one set of great-grandparents on that side happened to live in the same small town as my paternal grandparents (aka Grandpa and Evil Grandma), so we would get to see them at least briefly during the trip, but it was always clear that we were there to spend Christmas with Evil Grandma, and everyone else was secondary.
I was aware, during this time, that Mom’s side of the family liked to get together on Christmas Eve, and again for Christmas dinner the next afternoon, but Christmas morning was generally for each family unit at home. Because we often were arriving at Evil Grandma’s house late in the evening, I very seldom got to attend the other family Christmas Eve.
Then there was a period of three Christmases in a row where we lived just an hour’s drive from Evil Grandma, which meant getting to see everyone for a bit longer at the holiday. That is, until Nice Grandma re-married my Mom’s adoptive father, and she moved out to Washington state to live with him.
Then there were three Christmases we lived in the same small town as my paternal grandparents and my maternal great-grandparents (and only a couple hours drive from a bunch of other relatives). The tradition then became that we would spent a chunk of Christmas Eve with my Great-grandparents, then Christmas morning and Christmas dinner at Evil Grandma’s.
Then after my parents divorced, Mom, my full sister, and I moved up to the same town in Washington state where Grandpa and Nice Grandma lived, and that first Christmas Eve was a revelation. When Grandma lived in Colorado, Christmas Eve involved my Great-grandparents and a few of Grandma’s friends, because there weren’t many of her non-in-law relatives there. In Washington, there were Grandpa’s siblings and their children and grandchildren, my Mom’s six half-brothers (and for some of them wives and children), plus a bewildering number of cousins, demi-cousins, shirt-tail relatives of many other sorts, plus the people that Nice Grandma always seemed to adopt.
Not every single one of that vast constellation of Grandma’s “folks” made it every year, but a lot of them managed to drop in for at least a little bit. As my Aunt Theresa (who was the ex-wife of one of my Mom’s brothers) was fond of saying, “You never knew who you would see at Gert’s Christmas Eve!”
Aunt Theresa was a great example. She had only been married to my Uncle Randy for three years. They divorced when I was about 14 years old. Theresa and Grandma had got along really well from the first time they met, so she was the one who came to Grandma the tell her thag she was divorcing Randy. Theresa told the story later that, “Gert looked me right in the eye and said, ‘You can divorce my son, if that’s what you have to do, but you are not divorcing me! You’re part of my family forever, you understand?’”
And for the next 30-some years of Grandma’s life, Aunt Theresa came by frequently to visit, check on Grandma, and keep her up-to-date on the well-being of Theresa’s relatives—because Grandma still considered them all in-laws.
Two: I only got to see another one of my Mom’s half-brothers at a couple of those Christmas Eves, once I was living nearby and able to attend. Uncle Brad never quite got his life together. He spent a lot of time in jail. He was never convicted of anything serious—I think the longest sentence he ever got was six months—but, between being addicted to a couple of illegal substances, and having to sell said substances to support himself at times, he just couldn’t stay out of trouble. So sometimes Uncle Brad missed Christmas Eve because he was in jail, and sometimes because he was in some other trouble.
And then he got sick. Everytime Grandma called him, he said he hadn’t been coming to visit because he was sick again, and figured he was contagious with whichever illness he thought he had.
Christmas Eve 1982 was the first time we had seen him in months, and he looked awful. Of Mom’s brothers, Brad had been the shortest, and he had never been what anyone would call fat, but that night, he looked like he hadn’t eaten in weeks. Grandma thought that he was using more serious drugs, and confronted him a few times. He insisted that he wasn’t, that he’d just kept catching things that he couldn’t seem to shake.
Then one day a few months later, Aunt Theresa showed up at Grandma’s and said, “I have some very bad news. Have you heard of this new disease they call AIDS? Well, Brad has it. He thinks he got in it one of the times he was in jail…”
My Uncle Brad wasn’t a really early case, but when he was diagnosed in early 1983 it was only months after the Center for Disease Control gave the illness that name, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
Uncle Brad didn’t live to see Christmas Eve of 1983.
My Uncle Brad was hardly the only person that I knew that would be taken by AIDS. I’ve written before of the winter when so many friends and acquaintances of Ray and I died in the same six-week period that we couldn’t attend some of the memorial services because they were happening at the same time.
The disease didn’t get its name until September of 1982, but it had been recognized as an epidemic that ought to be taken seriously since 1981. Unfortunately, no one in either party on the national level was willing to even talk about it, let alone allocate funds to the CDC and other agencies to address it properly. The very first politician at a national level to call for the government to address the crisis was a woman from California who was elected to Congress in a special election in June of 1987 to fill a seat that was vacated with the previous Congresswoman died due to cancer.
That new Congresswoman, after being sworn in, was allowed to make a short introductory address to Congress as was traditional. Usually these comments are a brief thank you to family and supporters. And the new Congresswoman did that, but she ended her remarks with this statement that surprised her colleagues, “Now we must take leadership, of course, in the crisis of AIDS. And I look forward to working with you on that.”
The Congresswoman was Nancy Pelosi. And Pelosi became a tireless campaigner on the issue, bucking both her own party’s leadership, as well as taking on the Reagan administration’s (and subsequent Bush admin’s) bigoted opposition. During those early years, reporters and others kept asking how could she, as a Catholic, support what was perceived as a gay cause. Her answer was simple and consistent: “We are all God’s children, and that includes gay people.”
While people think of her as part of the establishment and middle-of-the-road, that is a gross mischaracterization. Not just then, but now. So in case it isn’t clear: I frequently describe myself as being far more liberal and progressive (radically so on many topics) than the Democratic Party, but this is one queer man who considers Minority Leader Pelosi’s current trajectory to become Speaker of the House as a big Christmas present to the forces of justice, mercy, and compassion.
Third: My Nice Grandma didn’t always live up to my idealized vision of her. Because of how negatively she (and other relatives) reacted to my coming out of the closet in 1991, I had to boycott all family events for six years. Not just Christmas Eve: everything. If my husband wasn’t welcome as my husband, then I wasn’t. It was years later that I would first read Dan Savage’s version of the same epiphany I’d had which led to the boycott: “The only leverage adult queer people have over parents and other family members is our presence in their lives. We shouldn’t fear losing them, they should fear losing us.” Because of the many times over a couple of months I had been told by multiple relatives that I was going to hell and deserved it, that sure I could live my life as I chose but any time I was in there home… I had had to tell them I would not visit them, ever, but if they liked they could come visit me. Though, any time they were in my home…
(Those ellipses can imply so much, no?)
After six years, it was Grandma who reached out shortly before my birthday in 1997 and asked if she and my step-grandpa could drive Mom (who doesn’t do freeways) to see me on my birthday. I said of course. It was awkward for about an hour, but the ice finally melted, and the next thing we know they were inviting us to come down to a picnic and the meet my sister’s new daughter (my sister and her now-fifth-ex-husband were coming for a visit), and suddenly they started treating Ray like a person, instead of a symbol of whatever their feelings about my queerness were.
The change in attitude (including apologies) was topped off by a request that we come visit for Christmas, where, yes, Ray was welcome, and none of the weird conditions previously alluded to were expected.
I really wish I could end this by talking about Ray’s first Christmas Eve at Grandma’s. The problem was, Ray was very sick (he did not, by the way, have AIDS; that picnic had been a bit difficult for us to juggle because Ray’s second round of chemotherapy was underway, but we managed). In November he had a seizure, went into a coma for several days, and then died.
Michael’s first Christmas Eve with Grandma happened in 1999. It wasn’t the first time he and Grandma met. That had been at a different trip, where I decided it would be better not to have the first meeting tied to a major holiday. We had been on our way to Mom’s (she lived an hour south of Grandma back then), and we stopped in for what was supposed to be a short visit (just in case). Michael had hardly spoken a couple of sentences when Grandma gave him a look and asked, “Is that a Missouri accent I hear?”
Soon the two of them were talking about all these places in Missouri and Oklahoma where Michael had grown up, and where coincidentally Grandma had lived for a number of years. You want to talk about coincidences? The hospital listed on Michael’s birth certificate, is the same hospital listed on Mom’s birth certificate.
Anyway, they just kept talking. At one point, my step-grandpa leaned over and said quietly to me, “If you wanna get a burger or something, I think the two of us could slip out and they wouldn’t even notice.”
I was very happy. Grandma liked Michael. That meant if anyone else in the family didn’t, well, they have to keep it to themselves.
Despite the warm fuzzies of that encounter, all of the things I said yesterday about why we avoid the big family gathering apply. This Christmas Eve, it will just be Michael and I. We usually cook a sort of romantic dinner. I’ll watch some Christmas movies. We’ll probably stay up until midnight to say “Merry Christmas” and have a kiss under the mistletoe. But we have to get to bed soon after, because first thing in the morning, we always check our stockings to see what Santa brought.